Sacred New Potatoes

A day out from Apia, Samoa, Pamela was floating in a calm, glassy sea with her engine driving her at a leisurely 4 knots.  Next stop, Niuatopotapu, a remote island in the Kingdom of Tonga called “the Sacred Coconut” in Tongan and referred to by cruisers as “New Potatoes”, lay about 180 miles to the south west.  With wind predicted in the mid-teens from the east-southeast, I was looking forward to an easy sail, beam reaching, two nights and one day of easy sailing.   After two weeks in the heat of Apia harbor, dirty with the grit of construction around the bustling commercial port, I was ready for a fresh sea breeze and blue water.

The first night had been quite calm.  We had motored quietly out of Apia harbor at sunset, then hoisted all the sails to catch a faint seven knots of breeze that eased Pamela ever so slowly along the northern shore of the island along a black coastline  punctuated by a string of lights, the last lights we would see for many weeks.  A northwest squall had suddenly pounced as we were traversing between Samoa’s two main islands, ‘Upolu and Savai’i, but the squall had lasted only a few minutes, with full main and jib pushing Pamela over hard and me holding the wheel with knuckles that shone white in the moonless night.

Now in the daylight, I felt the wind slowing to six knots, five knots, four knots, steadily decreasing and causing the main sail to flap like a half dead fish.  If only we could get seven knots of wind!  With that magic number we could fill our sails and glide through these smooth seas making good progress to Tonga.  I would trade four knots of wind for a gale, I thought, then hastily rapped my knuckles against the teak combing.

We lowered the forlorn sails and ran the engine throughout the morning.  I knew a rugged marine diesel engine could take it, running for days on end.  Looking out at the endless ocean, however, and imagining the miles ahead, the horizon that never changes, the soft lines of waves resembling the time-worn blue ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains, the water flowing by with the leisure of country folks strolling home from church, and the little stream of wake behind gurgling like a spring emerging from a rock in a hollow of those mountains, watching this slow-moving scene for hour upon hour, and knowing that it will proceed like this for mile upon mile, you begin to doubt the longevity of the diesel engine, you place your trust in the sails and you long for the coming of the wind.

I listened to the tunka-tunka-tunka of the engine for hours, then ducked below for a few hours rest while Pam took over.  I came back up into the cockpit in the early afternoon and stared again at the wind instruments, willing the wind to push the needle from four to seven.  No use.  I sat back down against the combing and continued reading.  What was I reading now?  I was losing track — four different e-books about London in the Middle Ages, the recent wars in Afghanistan, Tom Neale’s account of living alone on the island of Suwarrow, and a Louis L’Amour western about men with fists of steel; a couple of paper books including the complete short stories of Robert Louis Stevenson and the history of the Beaufort Scale; and audiobooks about the Mayflower, the history of Greece, and an interesting account of how LSD swept like wild fire through the 60’s.  So many subjects, some would say an eclectic collection, but none I wanted to read this afternoon.  I just wanted some wind.

The wind generator mounted above my head began to turn, slowly at first, and then steadily.  Eight knots!  I hoisted all sails and watched them begin to fill, happily shutting down the engine.  Ah, the sound of the wind and waves once again, no more tunka-tunka-tunka.  Six-foot waves began to form from the south-east, pushing against Pamela as she attempted to leap over them like a puppy chasing a butterfly.

The sky was beginning to fade into a mass of leaden gray, a few blotches grayer than the others, and the wind continued to rise, soon into the high-teens.  It seemed as soon as the sails were hoisted it was time to reef them again, first one reef then two, giving me a late-afternoon aerobic workout.  The waves were steeper now and coming from two different directions.  Suddenly there was a blast of spray, warm and salty, across the dodger and over the combing, drenching my head and washing away the Apia grime, baptizing me in the name of Poseidon, brother of Zeus, with trident in hand.

I put on my foul weather gear, a little late perhaps, then pulled down the hood over my soggy head and snuggled under the dodger in a vain attempt to stay dry or less wet.  The waves were now hitting us hard as if Poseidon was exchanging his trident for a hammer.  Every minute or so another steep one crashed with sudden intensity against the beam, sending Pamela far over on her starboard side, forming whitewater down her port railing, and spraying the cockpit with a furious blast.  The wind generator shrieked in pain as the twenty-five-knot gusts spun its blades in a tortured frenzy, then stopped altogether as the winds reached Force 7, switching on a mode called “hysteresis braking” to protect the turbine.  I wished I could apply hysteresis braking to Poseidon’s wind generator.  “You wanted wind!” he shrieked, then jabbed Pamela once more with his trident to send her tumbling down into a trough.

The sullen remains of daylight began to peter out, giving way to a sodden blackness, and I clipped on the safety harness and settled my mind to endure a long night of bumper cars on the high seas.  The rain came off and on, indistinguishable from the flying salt spray, and the entire universe was a swamp of wet darkness.  My foul weather clothing could not keep out this universe and became as sodden as all the rest.

I dozed off and on, sometimes listening to the crash of waves, sometimes the story of LSD or the Mayflower, shivering as I lie on the soaked cushions pushed hard against the low side of the cockpit.  With Pamela’s low freeboard, the whitewater rushed just a few inches past my head.  A pale moon struggled to emerge through the black clouds and managed to illuminate the whitecaps from time to time.  The sea was a roaring, swirling washing machine, and the long night wore on.

Daybreak came timidly across the blank horizon, no sun, just a gradual lightening of the  solid gray.  I rose to awaken my creaking bones and stiffened ligaments, surveying the scene.  The seas were still pounding, the wind still in the twenties.  The self-steering windvane was holding up its end, keeping Pamela on a straight course.  The main sail kept its aerodynamic curve without signs of strain.  The jib showed a bit of dacron cloth beginning to come loose, but otherwise held tight in the onslaught of wind and waves.  The dinghy folded in its bag was still securely lashed to the cabin top.  The four diesel jugs were holding tight even though whitewater foamed past their bottom ends.  The staysail in its cover looked soaked and dejected, but held firm with its hanks around the staysail stay.  The spinnaker in its “box bag” was … wait, where was the spinnaker? I saw the tattered remains of the bag dangling helplessly over the side and knew at once the fate of the spinnaker.  That beautiful white, red, and green sail with its wind sock and collar, costing several thousand dollars, was floating miles downwind on its way to Fiji like a giant ameba extending fingers of protoplasm, a writhing undersea umbrella for small sea creatures to hide under.

I tried getting angry, then sad, then laconically pensive, but after a night of shivering in the wet cockpit I didn’t have the energy for a proper kaniption fit.  Oh well, what’s the use of having a spinnaker if you’re too lazy to fly it?

The wind howled stiffly from the south-southeast all day.  Pamela bashed into the pounding waves with her chin held high, but with the wind in the south quadrant we were moving progressively fifteen degrees off our course to Niuatopotapu.  We tacked back to our rhumb line but the starboard tack carried us to the northeast, well away from our target, and at no better than three knots.  Starboard tack proved to be rather wet, with leaks around the port chainplates, enough to cause a salty puddle on the saloon floor.

A few days later we fetched up in Niuatopotapu harbor, cold, wet, and miserable.  The wind was still howling.  Our broken transmission cable made the anchoring procedure a nerve-racking trial, but our friends on Southern Cross put their dinghy in position and shouted, “Drop it here!”

What a relief it was to be floating in flat water inside the reef of Niuatopotapu!  We spent the following day drying out our clothing and the insides of the boat, catching up on sleep.  I’d spent 60 hours straight in the cockpit the last few days of the passage, and I slept like fallen coconut tree.

The kids on shore were cute, asking if we’f brought them candy in English they were learning in the village school.

“Where’s my lolly?” asked a boy about eight years old.

“My lolly!” repeated his younger sister, about six.

“Lolly,” came the high-pitched song of her sister, about four.

Meanwhile I counted the pigs in the village.  Including the four that were rooting through the coral several yards out on the exposed low-tide reef, I counted nineteen.  The sows hurried across the road as we approached, with their tiny spotted piglets galloping in zig-zags behind them.

Tongan women washing pandanus for weaving
Tongan women washing pandanus for weaving






Piggies roasting in celebration of the Bishop's visit to Niuatopotapu
Piggies roasting in celebration of the Bishop’s visit to Niuatopotapu

After meandering through the village and exploring the coconut groves I was returning to the dinghy landing when I met a young man who had just come ashore.  From a distance I saw him land, tie up his boat, then hop up onto the landing.  He was putting on his knapsack as I approached, and something about his movements seemed asymmetrical.

“I’m Dustin,” he introduced himself.  He had just arrived from Hawaii by way of Pago Pago and appeared to be going solo.

“Singlehanding?” I asked.

“Literally,” he replied.

It was then I noticed he didn’t have a left arm.  Nor a left leg, for that matter.  The leg was a steel-rod prosthetic with a weather-beaten tennis shoe attached.  The missing arm was a stump attached to a shoulder, pointing up and down in gesticulatory agreement when he waved his right hand.  He was in his late-thirties, solo-sailing his 35-foot sailboat Rutus.

“What does ‘Rutus’ mean,” I asked him later when we were having dinner on board Pamela, sitting down to enjoy a hearty Oaxacan chicken mole with a warm loaf of whole wheat bread that Pam pulled from the oven.

“A rutus is a wooden sword that the ancient gladiators used to train with,” Dustin explained.

I tried to imagine how I could sail Pamela with only one arm.  Each time I reached for a line or a winch handle I thought what it would be like without two hands.  There is a nautical expression, “one hand for the ship and one for yourself”; meaning, when operating the boat you always need to be holding on tight.  But in Dustin’s case the hand for the ship took priority.

But Dustin was completely content with his situation.  He was putting in more effort than any other sailor, and perhaps putting his life on the line.  But, he said, if it weren’t for his unfortunate motorcycle accident, hit by a drunk in a truck, he probably wouldn’t be out here sailing.  Dustin struck me as the most well-adjusted young sailor I’d met.

A few days later he and I were free-diving with Jack from Iguana.  I’d never been spearfishing before, so Jack was showing me the basic moves.  Jack, about twenty-eight, was quite a fisherman and kept Iguana’s freezer full of ahi, mahi mahi, and wahoo.  He’d been at Niuatopotapu for two weeks when we’d arrived, and he’d been out spearfishing every day.  Several times he’d spotted humpback whales swimming lazily off the reef.

“Let your body go completely slack,” he said.  “Minimal movement, feel your heart rate go down.  Take a few deep breaths then point straight down and kick.”

I went down about fifteen feet then came back up a moment later slurping air.  I still had the unpleasant memory of diving twenty-five feet in Suwarrow to release my tangled anchor chain, not properly clearing the pressure from my ears.

“That’s going to be pretty hard with those fins of yours.  They’re short and they’re also flexing 90-degrees.”

I stared at my sadly flexing swim fins.  Compared to Jack’s and Dustin’s long fins mine seemed like stumps.  One was about to break in half.

“There’s a couple giant clams down there,” said Jack.  “See them?  Dustin’s looking for a giant clam, so I’m going to go down and lay the speargun beside them.”  Then down he went like a slow-motion torpedo moving gracefully with his long fins.  He laid his speargun down in a sandy patch beside a coral shelf about twenty-five feet down, then resurfaced slowly a minute later.  He motioned for Dustin to swim over to the spot.  How could Dustin possibly swim down that far with only one leg and one arm?  With my stubby fins I had kicked my hardest and only made it halfway.

“It might take a few dives to pry it off the coral,” Jack remarked.  Then with a long screwdriver in his hand Dustin descended.  From the surface I could see his body jerking at the giant clam down below.  He was down there a minute or so before he began to resurface.  With a grin he presented the huge clamshell, about a foot wide, in his good hand.  A moment later he was down again, this time prying away at the second clam.

Jack showed me how to load his spare speargun, then swam off to hunt.  I floated along the reef gazing at hundreds of tropical aquarium fish, none of which I could properly identify, with the exception of the turquoise-colored parrotfish with its goofy grin.  I pointed the speargun at a brown-colored fish but decided not to shoot.  I didn’t want to eat a brown fish with all these multicolored rainbows swimming about.

Finally, after several minutes of drifting I took aim at a parrotfish in a shallow area of the reef.  Thwack went the speargun, sending the spear deep into a chunk of coral where the parrotfish had been a moment before.  I swam down to pull out the spear but it was wedged tight.  Several times I dove down and tugged on it.  Multitudes of tropical fish swam by to watch, now that the spear was safely lodged in the rock.  Finally the spear came out with a thunk.  This spearfishing was turning out to be harder than it looked.

I tried to recall how Jack had showed me how to reload the spear, examining the strong rubber bands, impossibly short.  I couldn’t pull them even halfway back to the trigger point, and even if I could there didn’t seem to be any way to latch them in place.  Surely there must be something missing; maybe a special piece had fallen off when the spear was wedged into the coral.  What would Jack say if I screwed up his speargun?  I had to find that missing piece.  I swam back to the edge of the reef to find the spot where I’d fired the speargun.  Through canyons of coral and ravines of ridges I paddled hard against the surge, my stubby fins pumping hard.  It all looked the same.  If there in fact was a missing piece to the speargun I’d never find it.  I swam back to the dinghy and waited.

After a long while Jack returned.  I showed him the speargun.  “It’s perfectly fine,” he said.  A moment later he had it loaded.  Damn, I need to figure this out.

“Did you get any fish?” I asked him.

“A couple.  Inside the boat.”

I looked in the dinghy and found several large parrotfish and an enormous fish with a head the size of a tire.  Jack was particularly proud of it, called an uloua in Hawaiian, a large trevally.  He was not satisfied that I’d come up empty-handed on my first spearfishing odyssey and he insisted that I go down again and shoot something.

I found an unsuspecting parrotfish and fired, again burying the spear tip into a coral bank, but this time about fifteen feet down.  I pulled on the spear a moment, then floated up a few feet and pulled on the tether, then floated up a few feet more until I was upside down and nowhere near the surface of the water.  I floated there a moment gazing up at the rich oxygen above the surface and wishing I could get some but reluctant to let go of the speargun’s tether.  I finally had to let go of the gun, popping up the surface with a mighty gasp.  Jack dove down without a word and quietly retrieved the abandoned speargun.

I was feeling rather ridiculous at this point.

Meanwhile, Dustin appeared with his third giant clam.

Jack urged me to try once more.  I was freezing cold by this time, furious with my retarded swim fins, and wanted to go home.  I fired again at a parrotfish and this time got lucky.  I pulled the little guy up to the surface and felt like the Great White Hunter.  Next to the trevally with the tire-sized head my parrot fish was nearly invisible.

“Your first kill,” Jack intoned.  “Not bad.”  He paused and then pointed.  “Look down here.  See that grouper?”

I looked into the depths where Jack was pointing.  I saw a few angelfish and triggerfish but no grouper.  Besides, I didn’t quite know what a grouper looked like.

Jack continued to point.  I looked again and saw nothing.  He pointed again.  It was beginning to feel like a bad comedy.  I decided to dive down once more and have a closer look.

About fifteen feet down I came upon a beautifully fat purple fish covered with plump black dots.  It was love at first site.

I fired at the grouper and then pulled on the tether to see if there was anything like a grouper attached to it.  Miraculously the spear did not go into a coral bed.  It went right through the head of my cartilaginous prey.

“Great shot!” exclaimed Jack.  “Way to go!  Let’s call it a day.”  With chattering teeth I agreed and clambered aboard the dinghy.  The dark-purple grouper was the second largest fish in the dinghy, next to the big trevally.  Ah, sweet redemption for an ex-trout farmer.

That evening we enjoyed a fantastic feast aboard Pamela.  Dustin marinated his clams in a Hawaiian poke sauce and served them with great panache.  Jack provided a grouper and a couple parrotfish which Pam sautéed alongside my grouper in a coconut-cream sauce.  Pam topped it all off with a loaf of fresh-baked bread made from olives and herbes de Provence.

As I lightly strummed my guitar and sipped white wine I reflected on the spearfishing that Dustin, Jack, and I had done and the bounty of fresh fish we had provided for our table, feeling perfect contentment.  The winds died down to a whisper, the sky turned pink, and the developed world seemed like a million miles away.

Kava ceremony on Niuatopotapu
Kava ceremony on Niuatopotapu

Anxious in Bora Bora

How curious.  In The Cruise of The Snark, Jack London writes almost nothing about the most famous island of all — Tahiti.  All of the other significant landfalls of his 1907 sailing journey receive their fair share of discourse, but Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, he dismisses with a hand wave, and decides instead to turn his attention to a lengthy description of “the Nature Man,” a vagabond who lives in the jungle above Papeete.

Jack London meets the Nature Man some years before his epic sail, in San Francisco.  The reader can’t tell whether he’s a charlatan or a sage.  Living like a hermit in a shack in a grove high atop one of San Francisco’s famous hills (this is before the infamous 1906 earthquake), the Nature Man resembles a kind of John the Baptist.  He wears rough homespun clothing, eats only vegetables, sports a shaggy beard and an uncombed mane, speaks in parables, and turns handsprings when he comes out to meet the famous writer.  You can easily picture the Nature Man in modern-day Berkeley, lurking behind a tree in the People’s Park.  But in the early 1900’s he is quite an anomaly.

Imagine Jack London’s surprise when he meets the Nature Man again in Tahiti.  The Nature Man is there to meet the Snark as she sails into Papeete harbor, then invites Jack London on a bush-whacking trek up the densely forested mountain to a space he has partially cleared and planted with hundreds of mangoes, bananas, and breadfruit trees.  He tells his fascinating story:  some years earlier he lay lingering on his deathbed while all sorts of doctors investigated, probed, and prescribed.  Convinced it was simply fresh air that he needed, he escaped the hospital and began living alone in the outdoors, abandoning red meat.  He ends up in Tahiti, hacking a rough subsistence farm out of the mountainside, and seems very happy.

I think of the Nature Man as Pamela sails to Tahiti.  What is happiness?  What does it take to be truly happy?  On a mission to find peace, time, and space, one pursues the dream of learning to sail, acquiring a boat, and sailing across an endless ocean to cultivate a quiet mind.

Reaching Papeete on a black, squally night, I dropped Pamela’s jib, flattened the double-reefed mainsail, and set her up to heave-to quietly in the oncoming waves, barely moving as the rain squalls passed overhead, laying just offshore to wait for the dawn.  The jagged outline of Tahiti began to form as the sky lightened to a dull gray, with dramatic Moorea about a dozen miles to the north west.  I was alert and watching for traffic as the ferry boats and fishermen began their morning run.  Meanwhile, the sky dissolved into a gray-black blob and the fiercest squall of the journey so far hit Pamela hard.  The wind meter soared above 30 knots and the rain flattened into a horizontal sheet of cold bullets.  Pamela endured the squall easily with her bow 50-degrees to the big rollers that formed in the onslaught of the gale.  Her mainsail held firmly in the onrush of wind and her rigging sang a rollicking shanty.  She sat so well in the waves that Pam read a book below, obliquely aware that there was a spot of weather outside.  I stood comfortably enough in the cockpit, dry in my foul weather gear, enjoying the storm and grateful that I was not trying to enter the harbor at that moment.

In the anchorage we found several boats we’d met previously in the Marquesas.  We found a good landing dock next to a cafe with cold beer and good wifi, and an enormous   shopping mart a short distance down a busy highway.  Trekking down the highway put me in a dull mood, with cars and trucks spewing exhaust, scooters without mufflers breaking the sound barrier, and plastic Coca Cola bottles strewn alongside.  I tried to mentally prepare myself for the mega-store.  I hadn’t seen one in the past 4000 miles, and I knew it would contain any kind of grocery item I could think of.  But I wasn’t quite prepared for the onslaught of consumerism.  Vast columns of soft drinks!  Rows of sweet breakfast cereal!  Islanders well over 300 pounds waiting at the checkout station dragging shopping carts heaping over with every sort of sweet carbohydrate in plastic packaging.  I picked out some wine and bacon then waited for Pam at the checkout, settling into a seriously dismal funk.  The highway, the superstore, the plastic, all introduced in the past twenty years, totally foreign, unnatural to these islands, and now an integral component of city life in a lost paradise.  I had to move on to Moorea, to Huahine, to Tahaa, to escape.  I felt an overpowering urge to return to the primitive existence I’d found in the Marquesas.

At the marina by the anchorage we met young Fynn, son of Bruce from the catamaran Skabenga, who we’d met in Hiva Oa, Fatu Hiva, and Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas.  Fynn is a happy-go-lucky nineteen-year-old with dreadlocks, tattoos, and a handsome face with a perennially sweet expression that reminds me somewhat of our son Lindsay.  His face lost its happy features when we asked him where he was headed next.  Apparently he was going no further with Bruce and was looking for a ride to New Zealand.  But he needed to get his passport renewed first and needed a work permit, and he was frustrated with the bureaucracy in Papeete.  Meanwhile, he had no place to sleep.  “I have my hammock,” he smiled wanly.  “I found a place under some trees.”  When we left Papeete the following day he was sitting by the wharf looking pensively into the water.

On we sailed to Moorea with her silhouetted extinct volcanos.  I hiked high into her mountains to escape from the city scene of Papeete, climbing over the ruins of maraes and temples overgrown by ancient banyan trees in steep canyons where mosquitos thrived in the forested gloom.  We swam with black-tipped sharks and tame stingrays in Moorea’s famous lagoon, then sailed overnight to Huahine, where we rented bicycles and pedaled off across the island to visit a pearl farm, then rented a car to retrace the route we’d already covered on the bicycles.  Then off to Raiatea and Tahaa, two volcanic islands that share one huge lagoon, and where we’d been before, in 2009, on a chartered sailboat getting our first taste of the cruising life.  Raiatea is a cruiser’s haven, with charter boats and various yacht services available.  As we sailed past its main town, I recall thinking, “You really should get those navigation and anchor lights installed at the top of the mast.  It’s a long way to New Zealand ….”  My anchor light had gone from dim to dead, and the navigation light had been knocked off the boat by a wayward spinnaker sheet back in Mexico.  I was seriously procrastinating on getting these fixed, yet I knew I would probably have no more opportunities to fix them until New Zealand.

We sailed into Apu Bay on the southwest corner of Tahaa.  The Taravana Yacht Club, the little bar and restaurant where we’d stayed during Christmas 2009, was all closed up.  It felt wonderful coming back to Apu Bay.  This time, the lagoon felt familiar and we no longer feared sailing through a pass in a coral reef.  But what would we do here without a base like the tiny Taravana Yacht Club?  What had happened to it, and to Richard, the American we’d met here in 2009?  We enquired about Richard at the adjacent pearl farm, and the proprietress there told us that he was still living in Apu Bay, a little distance down the one-lane road around the bay.  So we set off to find him on a bright warm morning.   On the way we found a little shack with a sign advertising fresh crêpes at any hour of the day, which we certainly couldn’t pass up.  A tall man came walking down the street with a pretty young girl.  “Is your name Richard?” I asked self-consciously.  “Yes, why?” he answered, and I explained that we’d met him four years earlier.  He was on his way to the pearl farm to visit a friend, and the young girl was his daughter from France.  He invited us to his house to watch the Worlds Cup soccer match, and there we met Randy, a flat-picking guitar and banjo player, who I jammed with several times while we stayed in Tahaa.  Randy had just sailed his trimaran down from Hawaii and planned to leave it on a mooring in front of Richard’s place for a few years or so.  They had met in Rangiroa as young men over thirty years ago, each pursuing the dream of sailing a boat to the South Pacific.

Finally I decided to tackle the anchor and navigation lights.  I had a new masthead light and plenty of wire, but I’d have to run the wire down from the top of the mast and through the boat to the DC electrical panel, and that seemed like a major job.  Richard knew a marine electrician in Raiatea who could help, so we contacted him and made plans to take the boat over to Raiatea’s town wharf in a few days.  Meanwhile, we sailed to the north end of Tahaa to a quiet anchorage with a stunning view of Bora Bora, a fabulous coral garden for snorkeling, and an upscale hotel on the motu where we could get a foo-foo island drink.

A few days later we sailed out of the Tahaa lagoon to Bora Bora, feeling the satisfaction of having finally installed the new anchor and navigation lights.  However, the navigation light had a flaw in its LED circuitry and only the port-side and rear lights worked.  Oh well, two out of three, but I’d have to order a replacement and pick it up somewhere down the line, probably New Zealand, and of course go back up to the top of the mast to re-install it.  The marine electrician had recommended an external voltage regulator that he believed would help to charge the batteries much faster and more efficiently, so I felt satisfaction in having had this new electrical device installed.  Hooray!  I had gotten off my lazy butt and had some significant boat work done.

Bora Bora, with Mt. Olemanu peaking through the motus

But I still felt some apprehension.  What was it?  Was it the weather systems west of Bora Bora that had me somewhat anxious?  We would be crossing the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ) and the trade winds we had enjoyed for the past four thousand miles would soon be interrupted by the high and low pressure systems coming across from New Zealand, bringing rain squalls at times, calms at other times, and reinforced trade winds on top of the highs.  And not likely any place to buy spare parts until New Zealand, a couple thousand miles away.  Besides, we didn’t even know where we were going — maybe south to Aitutaki, but its entrance was notoriously shallow; maybe to Rarotonga, but its harbor was small and crowded; maybe north to Suwarrow (formerly called Suvarov), but reportedly the national park ranger there would spray the boat for bugs and Pam can’t stand the thought of pesticides.

Bora Bora is the last opportunity to turn right and sail up to Hawaii, back to the States.  Or to call it quits and sell the boat outright.  That’s what Starshine was doing.  “We realized our dream,” said Dave of Starshine.  “We sailed to Polynesia.  Now we’re putting Starshine up for sale in Raiatea.”  He had had a lot of trouble on the passage from Mexico — loosing his engine about three days out, then sailing back upwind to Banderas Bay, then continuing the journey back to the Marquesas, but alone, without Gail his wife.  Now he was having trouble with both of his alternators.  Had he and Gail simply had it, fed up with the boat repairs, the frayed nerves from the anxiety of wondering what critical component would fail next?

A similar fate for Moshulu.  Jerry had practically built her himself, but now he was at the end of his odyssey, having sailed here from Mexico, and was planning to leave her in Raiatea, for sale.

After a week playing in Bora Bora, it was time to sail on to the Cook Islands.  Our 90-day visas for French Polynesia had expired, and the weather looked good for heading down to Aitutaki, 700 miles away.

The seas were rough outside of the Bora Bora lagoon, although the winds were too light to sail.  We bobbed around for a while listening to the limp sails banging against the rigging, then started up the engine and chug-chugged our way toward Maupiti.  The washing machine seas suppressed any appetite, and the day turned into a miserable episode.  Then, going below, I glanced at my instruments and gasped in horror — the voltage of the batteries was over sixteen volts!

For a twelve-volt battery system, thirteen and a half volts is normal during a charging cycle.  You can take the batteries up to a little over fourteen volts for a brief period, causing unwanted deposits to boil away off the cells.  But sixteen volts is unheard of.  My batteries were basically frying.  The new voltage regulator was telling the alternator to give the batteries all you’ve got.

Immediately I switched off the engine to stop the overcharging.  Pamela bobbed like a cork in the waves while I wondered what to do.  With the satellite phone I managed to reach the man who had installed the new voltage regulator in Raiatea a week earlier.  He suggested that I take the fuse out of the circuit between the regulator and the alternator, effectively switching off the regulator, then motor back to Raiatea, about 60 miles away, to replace the regulator.

The thought of backtracking 60 miles upwind was appalling, but I had little choice.  A day and a half later we were sailing past Maupiti for the second time, but this time we were headed for Suwarrow instead of Aitutaki.  Amazingly, the replacement regulator was no better and the voltage problem persisted.  It didn’t make any sense to go back to Raiatea a third time.  I learned to watch the battery voltage very closely when running the engine and to disconnect the regulator as soon as the voltage reached fourteen.

Meanwhile, across the southern route through the Cook Islands, a few hundred miles south of us, the winds were raging.  We were glad to be headed to Suwarrow in the northern Cooks rather than Aitutaki, Rarotonga, Beveridge Reef, and Niue.  Our wind and seas were heavy, though not as strong as the weather system to the south.  The wind angle was good but we couldn’t sail straight to our target.  Instead, we swung the boat in long gybes across our rhumb line, sailing several hundred miles out of the way and turning the five-day trip into a seven-day meditation session.

About midway through the trip I turned on the engine for a bit to recharge the batteries, keeping a close eye on the voltage problem.  When I shut down the engine, I heard the propeller shaft spinning down in the engine room and asked Pam to put the transmission in reverse briefly to stop the spinning.  When she tried pushing down on the lever to move back into neutral, she complained that she couldn’t get it into neutral.  Pam often complained that the gear shift lever was hard to engage.

“It takes finesse, not strength,” was my typical irritated reply.

“Well I can’t do it,” she resigned.

I signed heavily.  “Here, let me do it.”  I tried to gingerly prod the lever downward from reverse into neutral.  It was stuck, as usual, but I knew it would disengage the stuck gears with … one … good … push — and then — SNAP!  The lever became lifeless in my hand as the end of the transmission cable sheared its threads.

I cursed vainly, defiling Neptune, the Holy Trinity, and all the apostles in a solid round of sailorly oaths.  How would we get to Suwarrow with a busted transmission?

After some thought it occurred to me that I could manually shift the transmission by jumping down into the engine room and pulling up and down on the small lever attached directly to the transmission.  So I could put the engine into neutral to charge the batteries, and crank it down into forward gear when we needed to motor through the pass into Suwarrow.  I wouldn’t be able to handle the boat easily in tight quarters but I should be able to get into an anchorage and drop the anchor.

A day or so later the jib started showing a tear.  I hoped it would last until Suwarrow.  A day later the radar reflector came crashing down.  The line that suspended it from the port-side spreader had chafed through.  Late that night, while half-dozing in the cockpit I heard a strange metallic sound by the steering wheel, grabbed my flashlight, and discovered that the Monitor self-steering drum had fallen off the wheel.  Pamela bounded over the seas like a horse without a bridle.  Of all the systems on board, the self-steering was the Number One Most Important.  Two hose clamps that held the drum to the steering wheel had shorn off, their stainless steel bands finally giving way to the constant tension of turning the wheel left and right.  I found a couple of spare clamps in my tool locker and managed to secure the drum back to the wheel, resume self-steering, and went back to dozing.  Getting to Suwarrow was starting to feel like running through a gauntlet.  Back in Bora Bora, was I having a premonition of this unpleasant passage?

Maybe I should have put the boat up for sale in Raiatea?  Nonsense!  Maybe I should sell her in New Zealand?  Maybe I should quit whining and take it on the chin like a proper sailor.  After all the years of planning, saving, and preparing — and here I was, finally sailing my own boat through the South Seas, wondering how fast I could get rid of her.  That wouldn’t do.  What would Slocum and Moitessier think?

A few days later we were safely anchored in Suwarrow’s crystal-clear lagoon.  I took the binnacle apart to have a look at the transmission cable.  The stainless steel bolted end had broken off, so I would need a new cable.  Four screws holding down the compass would have to be removed before I could reach the end of the cable, and these screws refused to budge.  After copious blasts of WD-40 and another round of sailorly swearing and blaspheming of all the world’s major religions, I managed to strip the heads of all four screws.  With my electric drill and Dremel tool I reduced one of the screw heads to a mound of powdery metal filings, then decided to suspend further destruction until I was in Apia, Samoa.  Destroying the compass in mid-ocean on a deserted island seemed like a bad idea.

Pamela anchored at Suwarrow, just off Tom Neale’s jetty

I pulled down the jib and had a turn with my needle and thread.  The jib did not have a tear as I had feared, only a bit of dacron coming off one of the edges of the clew.  A few hours with my needle and rigger’s palm produced a handy repair, albeit somewhat like the scar on Frankenstein’s forehead.  I snapped a needle in half at one point and stuck it right through my finger.  It felt satisfying to be paying my dues.

Midway through the jib repair the wind began to rise.  Bursts from the south caused wind waves to emerge from the far side of the lagoon.  By the time the waves reached Pamela they were four or five feet high.  I looked up from my sewing and watched her bow rising and falling, submerging on each frenetic plunge.  The lagoon, typically calm and peaceful, was boiling like a witch’s caldron.  I was glad I had buoyed my anchor chain — tying a float to the chain fifty feet from the bow to keep the chain closest to the boat from dragging across the bottom and fouling itself on the numerous coral heads.  If the chain were to snag on a coral head below the boat, the shortened scope could cause the chain to break or the deck cleat to wrench loose.  As the wind grew stronger and the waves steeper, I stared back at the reef a few hundred yards downwind and imagined the horror of breaking free and fetching up on that razor-sharp edge.  More boats are lost on submerged reefs than to storms out at sea.  A moving boat can hit coral with such force that its fiberglass hull will crack open like a porcelain dish.  With the wind pinning the boat hard to the coral, it is often impossible to get the boat off the reef, and only a short while before she fills with water and founders.  Little did I know that this gruesome scene would play out in about a week’s time.

In a place like Suwarrow, such a boat would be completely and hopelessly lost.

In a place like Suwarow, a man could also be completely lost.  But not hopelessly.

In the late 1930’s Tom Neale, a New Zealander living in Moorea, discovered the writings of Robert Dean Frisbie, who had lived a while on Suwarrow.  Indeed, during the great hurricane of 1942, Frisbie had tied his four young children to a tamanu tree to prevent them from blowing away, as the wild ocean swells raked Anchorage Island and completely carried away sixteen of the twenty-two islands of the Suwarrow lagoon.  Neale began to dream of living on Suwarrow, and after meeting Frisbie in 1943 he made up his mind to somehow get to the isolated atoll.  Situated well away from the trade routes where a ship rarely passed, the atoll lay over 500 miles north of Rarotonga and 200 miles south of Manihiki, its closest neighbor in the Cook Island group.

“Tom Neale,” said Frisbie, “Suvarov is the most beautiful place on earth, and no man has really lived until he has lived there.”  If this were true, then very few men had ever really lived, for only a handful of men had ever spent any amount of time in this beautiful, empty Eden.  Two years later, Neale visited Suwarrow for the first time as crew aboard a schooner bound for Manihiki.  He fell in love with the forlorn group of islets surrounding fifteen miles of lagoon, and seven years later, when the next vessel from Rarotonga passed near the atoll, he jumped at the chance to visit again.  With a thoughtful collection of tools and kitchen supplies, a fifty-pound sack of flour, a seventy-pound bag of sugar, and forty pounds of coffee, Tom Neale found himself back on Suwarrow.  He woud live alone on the island until — who knows when?

As you stand on the beach of your isolated island, completely alone, watching your ship sail out of the lagoon and away, what thoughts go through your head?  Tom Neale describes his feelings in his book An Island To Oneself:

Over the years I had imagined this moment dozens of times, often wondering what sort of emotions I would experience at the actual moment of severing my last contact with the outside world.  I had imagined I might be a little despondent and had thought, too, there might be a sudden surge of almost frightening loneliness.  But now the schooner was leaving I felt nothing but impatience that the ship took so long to get under way.

How does he keep from becoming incredibly lonely on this half-mile long island?  Basically, he works himself each day to exhaustion.  Fishing for his food, hauling topsoil to create a garden, repairing an old coral-stone jetty, just to watch it disintegrate in the next storm, then repair it again, over and over, he keeps himself occupied with hundreds of chores and projects.  He may be alone in his Garden of Eden, but he is certainly not idle.  He even cuts his hair and shaves regularly.

Looking into my mirror on Pamela I see a spurious fur-ball staring back at me.  I shave once every six weeks.  I brush my hair only when it rains.  It stands up like Einstein experimenting with static electricity.  I might consider cutting my hair sometime but I don’t want to clean up the mess when it falls into the bilge.  If I were to live alone on Suwarrow I would become so lazy I’d turn into a tree.

It takes about ten minutes to explore the island.  As Pam and I walked from the small beach on the lagoon to the old hut where Tom Neale lived, we smell the nutty fragrance of the Tamanu tree, probably the same one where Frisbie tied his children in the hurricane of ’42.  A few steps later we are on the other side of the island gazing at the crushing waves of the Pacific Ocean.

Suwarrow’s lagoon is aquamarine, incredibly clear, and full of fish.  A short distance from Pamela we found a huge bommie (underwater coral head) to explore, over 100 feet across.  Its coral was vibrant and phosphorescent, with purples, greens, and blues that an artist would struggle to recreate.  Teeming with all kinds of tropical fish and squirming eels, it fascinated us as we circled it in our snorkel gear.

That same bommie would claim the life of a sailboat in a few days.

Suwarrow’s coral bommies make for difficult anchoring.  You can easily drop your anchor into soft sand, but in a few days your boat will drag its chain through an endless array of coral heads around the avenues of sand.  In the week that we were there, Pamela swung through all the points of the compass as the winds shifted from east to north to northwest, wrapping her anchor chain around a complex circuit of bommies.  From the surface twenty-five feet over the anchor I surveyed the chain in the clear depths below.  Near the anchor, the chain was wrapped three-quarters of the way around a big bommie, and around another one a boat-length from the bow.  With Pamela’s broken transmission cable I didn’t think I’d be able to forward and reverse my way around the bommies.  Rather, I had to dive on the anchor and attempt to lift the chain up and around each coral head using my bare hands.  I’d never dived down as far as twenty-five feet, but it seemed like a necessary thing to do.

When it was finally time to leave Suwarrow, I put on my mask and fins to survey the underwater scene.  About fifteen feet down I tried to clear the air pressure from my ears, then kicked hard to get down to the chain on the bottom.  At twenty feet my ears were exploding and my lungs were soon to follow, but I was determined to get the chain off that coral.  I grabbed the chain and heaved it upwards, unwrapping it from the first bommie, then slowly floated myself back to the surface.  A few deep breaths later I was kicking back down to the bottom.  The bommie near the anchor had overhanging sides and held the chain in place while I attempted to lift and shake it loose.  It took two or three dives to unhook the chain from the overhangs.  After clearing the chain, I came back on board with pride and satisfaction, although with somewhat of a hearing loss, then waved goodbye to Suwarrow.

Three days later we were halfway to Apia, Samoa when we heard the news on the morning radio net:  the sailboat Amiable, who we often heard on the radio net, had come into Suwarrow the day we left.  When a storm whipped into the lagoon a few days later, Amiable’s anchor chain malfunctioned.  As her crew attempted to navigate through the anchorage to the pass, she was blown hard onto the huge bommie that we had snorkled around a few days earlier.

The bommie tore a hole in Amiable’s hull, she filled with water and was destroyed.